When do you pounce on a car? Follow your gut
After 35 years of buying cars, I realize there are three basic ways of responding to an ad or a tip on a car for sale. The first is gathering information (talking with the seller, getting a description, asking for additional photos, etc). The second is going to see the car yourself, perhaps culminating in an agreement to buy the car and leaving a deposit. The third is what I call the full pounce. This is where you drop everything and drive directly there—with cash in your pocket and a trailer behind your truck—leaving no chance for someone else to buy it. Which option you choose depends heavily on the car in question and how badly you want it, plus your personal situation at the time.
I recently saw a Craigslist ad for a 1972 BMW 2002tii with 79,000 miles on the odometer. The five photos with the ad showed faded Agave (green) paint and saddle brown interior, as well as the correct close-in bumpers for a ’72. The car had a nice survivor vibe about it. No rust holes were visible, but there was some obvious wrinkling of the paint on the doors. The car wasn’t completely intact—it wore the wrong wheels, the radio was missing, and the steering wheel had been replaced—but the seats looked great, the rugs looked correct, and the door panels hadn’t been sacrificed to the siren song of 1970s Jensen triaxials.
The description was short, saying little more than the car had been in storage for many years, ran and drove and needed brake work, and that the $10,000 price was non-negotiable. Oh—and the car was in western Massachusetts, an easy two-hour drive for me out the Mass Pike. The ad had been up for a day (not sure how I’d missed it for 24 hours; must be getting old), so there was still a chance someone hadn’t snagged it.
Before you say, “Of course you do the full pounce,” you have to appreciate the context. This was the Friday before Thanksgiving. My wife and I host the holiday for nearly 30 people. And, as I recently wrote, I currently own 12 cars and I’m about to encounter a storage space crunch. I’m trying to sell; I shouldn’t even consider picking up another. Plus, among the dozen are three BMW 2002s. Two are 1972 2002tiis. And one of those is an Agave car, with a saddle brown interior, in survivor condition. So, just to be clear, we’re talking about running out on my wife five days before 30 people arrive… to potentially drop 10 grand I don’t really have… on a car nearly identical to one I already own… that I have nowhere to park.
What would you do? OK, you have to at least check it out at some level, right? We are nothing without our passions.
The ad listed a phone number. When I’m serious about a car, I pick up the phone (actually, I lunge for the phone) and do the human-to-human thing, but with this one, for the reasons I gave, I wasn’t sure how serious I was. So I settled on sending a text. I introduced myself, said that I don’t want to be one of 30 people asking for endless photographs of the undercarriage, but that, if he told me that there wasn’t a rust hole anywhere on the car, I could be westbound and rolling in 10 minutes. So yes, my resolve was already crumbling, but a potential rust-free survivor 2002tii trumps resolve any day of the week and twice on Friday. And it was Friday.
The seller responded, saying he knew who I was and had been reading my stuff for years (this, by the way, never gets old). Yes, he said, there had been a ton of interest in the car. No, he said, the car was very solid but not completely rust-free; he described a hole in the driver’s floor about the size of an apple (the spot just behind the pedal bucket is a common rust location on 2002s), and a few tiny holes in the driver’s side frame rail. Instantly the car slid from “no money, no space, but prepared to pounce anyway” to “if it’s convenient” status. I replied to the seller that I was intrigued and asked him to give me a call at his convenience.
A few hours later, the phone rang. The seller and I hit it off immediately. He was a professional mechanic who’d had the tii for about a year but never found the time to do anything with it. And now he and his wife and three kids were about to relocate back to her home state of Louisiana. I advised that, if the car started, ran, and drove, and had only the as-described rust, he was probably undervaluing it at $10K (I routinely undercut my own negotiating position in favor of genuine human interaction), and that if he put it on Bring A Trailer, it would likely bring considerably more.
“Yeah,” he said, “but the car has a snorkel nose, and I just don’t want to get beaten up over it on BaT.”
For the uninitiated, a carbureted 2002 has a two-inch metal “snorkel” tube that goes through the nose of the car just to the left of the right headlight, and feeds fresh air to the air cleaner. A fuel-injected tii, however, uses a different intake configuration, so the tii’s nose doesn’t have the “snorkel.” At some point in the 1970s, BMW stopped producing tii noses, so if you had a tii that rear-ended someone and needed its nose replaced, all that was available was a standard 2002 nose. Thus, 45 years later, many tiis are wearing a snorkel nose. This is the sort of thing that no one used to care about, but as the value of the cars has risen, folks now know to look for the absence of the snorkel as an indication of both a tii’s originality and lack of accident damage. The seller is correct, however, that the snorkel-watching has gotten completely out of hand, taking on a shrillness like Donald Sutherland in the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I told him that I would think it over, decide how interested I was, and let him know the next day.
I thought about it overnight. The car wasn’t rust-free, didn’t have its original nose, and was missing its original wheels and steering wheel. At $10K, it was probably an excellent deal, but not a steal. I’d need to move money to free up they money; I certainly couldn’t put my hands on it over the weekend even if I wanted to do a full-on pounce. The left side of my brain won the argument. I’d let someone else get this one.
The next morning, I started working through the pre-Thanksgiving task list that my wife had given me. But all the while, the right half of my brain was whispering, “You should be driving out to The Berkshires right now to look at that tii.”
“No,” the left half said. “You don’t need it, you can’t afford it, and you have nowhere to put it. You already made this decision. Now shut up and finish cleaning.” Back and forth my hemispheres bickered.
I decided that, when I was done with the task list, I’d allow myself to contact the seller again. I sent him a text asking him what the car’s title situation was. Just out of, you know, curiosity.
About 20 minutes later the seller called, and we chatted for nearly an hour. He told me the car’s story. It was very moving. It had been a one-family car since new. The family lived in Pittsburgh, which is where he (the seller) was from. The car had been stored for a period of time in the 1990s. It had been brought out of storage in 2001 and taken to a repair shop to get it roadworthy. At that point, the owner was killed in the World Trade Center attack. The car sat in that shop for the next 16 years. It was there that the current owner had first seen the car many years ago. About two years ago, he began negotiating with the shop owner to purchase it. It took six months for the shop owner to obtain legal ownership of the car, as the original owner’s family was non-responsive. The seller completed this story by saying that he could get a Massachusetts title; it’d just take about three weeks. I began to think that I’d feel honored to have this car sojourn with me for a few years.
“So,” I interjected, “is there an open, unsigned, undated Pennsylvania title in the shop owner’s name?”
“Yes,” he said.
“To the right buyer,” I said, “the existing open title is fine.” I then strongly implied that I was such a buyer.
“So…” I thought aloud, “the window of opportunity for me to see the car was really yesterday. I should’ve just run out to see it when we talked. With the workweek starting again tomorrow, and then Thanksgiving… it’s today or nothing… so I could be there by 5 p.m.”
“The problem with that is there’s a guy on the way up from Maryland to look at it,” the seller said. “He says he’s going to be here in 20 minutes.” Instantly I thought, “Damn it, this guy’s doing the full pounce. I’m toast.”
“We’ll see what happens,” the seller said. “No one’s put cash in my hand yet. You never know. I’ll let you know.”
Later that evening, I got the text. The buyer told the seller that he’d been looking for a solid 2002tii for years, and kept finding cars were much rougher than advertised, getting priced out, or missing out to someone faster. Sounds like a deserving buyer.
The next day, I texted the seller, thanking him for taking the time to call me even though another buyer was already on the way. He replied that he thought it was best to call to fully answer my questions, that he had no way to be certain that the other gentleman was going to buy the car, and that texting lacks a certain human element. Hey, we’re car people. We like talking cars with each other.
So, do I regret not having done the full pounce? Nah. I got it right the first time. Nearly out of money, totally out of space, already own the nearly the same car, and five days before 30 Thanksgiving guests arrive. There are limits. This exceeded them. I followed my gut.
Besides, you never know what is waiting around the corner.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.